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TEACHING CHILDREN TO CHOOSE 



FANNIE M. CLARK 
Rozelle School, East Cleveland, Ohio 



Two years ago I had the opportunity of supplementing my 
education by acting as chaperon to a group of girls on a "vacation 
trip." The experience taught me many things, one of which seems 
a propos of my point here. It was our plan that, when we stopped 
at a hotel or restaurant conducted on the a la carte or cafeteria 
plan, the girls should, with a few restrictions, order each her own 
meal and pay each her own score. This was intended for the girls' 
education; it reacted as well for my own. One of the girls was the 
daughter of the very sensible mother who insists on "only whole- 
some food for young folks." In her reaction against her mother's 
very wholesome diet, our Mary would have dined on nothing but 
dessert had she had unrestricted choice. Another one of the crowd, 
a girl of thirteen, was suffering her first experience away from her 
mother. For her to decide what she should eat was a constantly 
recurring trial until, in her distress over the necessity of choice, 
poor little Roxanna would have gone hungry had not our Martha 
taken the responsibility on her slender but capable and experienced 
shoulders. Martha was trained in the making of decisions for 
herself and others, and gave her orders with a quiet dispatch which 
was a lesson to her chaperon as well as to her companions. 

We of the English faculty, like the devoted and painstaking 
mothers of many Roxannas, or the sensible mothers of many 
Marys, have prepared and served our careful and wholesome diet 
and placed it before our charges, often, in our thoughtful anxiety, 
premasticated by footnotes and predigested with analyses. They 
take the literary nourishment offered docilely enough, not because 
they enjoy it necessarily, but because they take it for granted that 
it is somehow for their good, like graham bread and Irish potatoes. 
Then when left to their own choice, they, like Roxanna, appalled 

135 



136 THE ENGLISH JOURNAL 

by the unaccustomed necessity of choice, go mentally hungry 
unless by some happy chance a literary Martha takes charge of 
them and with a "Try this" or "Read that" gives them the train- 
ing that we should have given; or like Mary, reacting against too 
much wholesomeness, they devote themselves entirely to the frothy 
and too often indigestible dessert furnished by the popular novel 
and story magazine. Happily, however, the mothers of Martha 
are increasing in number among the guardians of our literary taste. 
We do not propose, nor is it in our province, to discuss at any 
length here the methods we have used to present our subject. 
Undoubted it is, however, that the change of aim will necessitate 
a radical change of method as well as of material. The anatomical 
dissection — I had almost said vivisection — of our masterpieces is 
going out of fashion; and with the passing of the "literary 
analysis" let us hope fervently for the knell tolling the demise of 
the "examination" in literature. Strange that one should think 
of examining his fellow on such a subject, is it not? You read 
together a great piece of literature, hear together a wonderful 
symphony, or stand together before a beautiful painting, and, 
feeling thrilled with appreciation, you turn to your neighbor for 
bis sympathy. " Isn't that splendid ? " you whisper, but he regards 
you critically. "Quiz on it tomorrow, third period," he replies, 
"and it will be stiff." Yes, you can depend on its being "stiff," 
for we have grown remarkably clever in this unique art of devising 
examination questions on the masterpieces. Is it any wonder that, 
before a pupil begins a piece of work for class study, he knows he 
will not like it? The finer the passage, the clearer the argu- 
ment, the keener the humor, the tenderer the pathos, the more 
justified is he in his anxiety as to what question will be concocted 
about it in the "test." How many of the books which you read 
for pleasure in the "harmless enjoyment" of your leisure would you 
care to be examined over ? I confess that my leisure would cease 
to be either harmless or enjoyable flavored with such anticipation. 
If any proof were necessary that we need something of a drastic 
change in method, it might be made by a most daring experiment. 
If one were to select the most popular and sensational novel avail- 
able and teach it exactly as we have, some of us, been wont to teach 



TEACHING CHILDREN TO CHOOSE 137 

the literature which we hope is to be the lure to tempt our pupils 
to better reading, would the novel remain, think you, any more 
popular than we have made The House of Seven Gables or Silas 
Marner ? 

Nevertheless, however we may change our mode, even though 
we bid farewell to analyses, examinations, and stylistic technical- 
ities, the fact remains that we must make very material changes 
in the "what" as well as in the "how" of our course. Just what 
these changes shall be will depend on what we recognize as the aims 
toward the accomplishment of which we are going to strive. Sup- 
pose we are correct in our statement that our aim is twofold: to 
present literature as the record and interpretation of human life, 
and to train our pupils to judge for themselves its value and 
message. The flexibility of program for which we have argued 
in the preceding paragraphs will tend toward the satisfaction of 
the second purpose. To accomplish the first aim will mean that 
the literature taught will need to include much more modern 
work than it has done in the past. Human life, of which literature 
is the record and interpretation, did not cease with the death of 
Shakespeare or of Scott, nor with that of Hawthorne or of Irving. 
It is not necessary nor is it advisable, as we have seemed to suppose, 
to wait until a man be dead, and long, long dead, before we attend 
to his message. There are undoubtedly some writers living whose 
works will survive the crucial test of time. Undeniably there are 
many more whose work is essentially of today only, but whose 
message is very real and vital to the people who are also of today. 
The world of today is interested more immediately in the great 
problems which today and tomorrow have to solve, and there is an 
ever more urgent demand for contemporary literature dealing with 
those problems. Whether we like it or no, that demand must 
be met. 

To many of our faculty of English teachers this demand, and the 
necessity of satisfying it, is cause for grave apprehension. What 
is to become of our "classics"? Perhaps that apprehension is 
only natural, since teachers of English have been so long trained 
in the "classics" that these "classics" have become to them 
very much like the Bible, for the safety of which the rise of modern 



138 THE ENGLISH JOURNAL 

science caused such unnecessary fears. Just what is meant by the 
term is, perhaps, a little vague. Once, partly for my own amuse- 
ment and partly to help defend myself when charged with possessing 
iconoclastic tendencies irreverent to the sanctity of the long- 
established, I asked of an especially wide-awake class of eighth- 
graders this question: "What do you understand by the classics 
in literature?" Among other enlightening answers I received 
these two: this from the son of a college professor of English, 
"Classics are books your fathers give you and you keep them to 
give to your children"; and this from a quiet, conscientious girl 
with "future teacher" written large upon her anxious brow, 
"Classics are those great pieces of literature considered worthy 
to be studied in English classes of high school or college." Need 
I emphasize my point further by asking why you are, why I am, 
teaching — well, two-thirds of the English in our curriculum? Is 
it from judgment or from tradition ? 

It may even be true that we have been guilty of a certain 
hypocrisy — a perfectly unconscious hypocrisy, doubtless— in regard 
to our personal attitude toward this question of contemporary 
literature versus the classics. Is it not possible that some of us 
have been posing a bit, or aping the pose of the consciously "high- 
browed," one of interest in nothing except the strictly classic and 
of infinite scorn for anything approaching the popular ? Why not 
be sincere? This pose is doing not a little toward defeating the 
accomplishment of the very object we hope to attain. We are 
anxious to act as literary advisers to these young friends of ours, 
but they are — we have made them — frankly skeptical of our ability 
to read anything which they consider readable. The English 
teacher is a "high-brow," they reason, for she declaims against 
"modern trash"; therefore anything she recommends may safely 
be condemned unread. We have their unbounded pity because 
our interests are so limited by our profession that we cannot enjoy 
anything "real." They may be amazed, almost shocked, but they 
will be delighted, nevertheless, to find that the English teacher 
can laugh at Penrod and Daddy Long-Legs and enjoy re-reading 
The Virginian; and they will be more ready to believe that other 
things she recommends may be worth at least a trial. 



TEACHING CHILDREN TO CHOOSE 139 

Then let us face the question frankly and with open mind, 
confessing that, by fault of method or material or both, we have 
failed to a great extent to reach in our literature classes the aims 
we recognize as ideals. Someone has epitomized our fundamental 
mistake by saying that, instead of "starting where the child is and 
leading him where we want him to go," we have "started where 
he is not and have attempted to lead him where he does not want 
to go." Very clearly, then, our first step must be to find out just 
where in the literary world the child is. Our psychological advisers 
agree that especially in the early 'teen age is the bent of the social 
and moral nature determined by influences of environment. 
Investigation shows, too, that a vast amount of reading is done 
during these years. There, then, is our opportunity and our obliga- 
tion; for then, if ever in his life, the child reads; then his taste is 
most omnivorous; and then, if ever, must he be taught how to 
read and what to read. Since children in their early 'teens are 
found in the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades of school, a study of 
the reading tastes of the pupils of these grades has seemed to be profit- 
able. It was our desire to discover the type of reading done by 
choice, unprejudiced and undirected, rather than to determine 
the scope of reading done; so instead of asking for a complete list 
of books read, we asked for the favorite one and for the reason of 
the choice. Over one thousand answers were examined. We had 
hoped for a larger number, but the irregularity of conditions 
during the fall term probably accounts for the fact that only half 
of the cards sent out were returned. These, however, were rather 
widely distributed as to territory covered and diversity of com- 
munity, coming as they did from "East, West, and New England," 
from college town, manufacturing center, rural community, and 
large city. 

The overwhelming choice was, of course, fiction. Except for 
the new war books — Empey's, Depew's, Private Peat's, Rhymes 
of a Red Cross Man, Who Goes There ?, The Big Fight, and others, 
which really belong in a class by themselves — except for these, 
only seven pupils of the entire number reporting cited as their 
favorite a book not fiction. Two boys preferred Stoddard's Lec- 
tures, one of them because his "highest ambition in life is to travel 



140 THE ENGLISH JOURNAL 

and these books give one an idea wher.e to go"; besides, they 
are "easy out-loud reading." The National Geographic Magazine 
was the favorite of a twelve-year-old boy who does "not read 
books." A young Jewish boy's choice of The Young Man Entering 
Business, and the choice of two others, Panama, Past and Present 
and How the World Is Governed, were interesting as possible indica- 
tions of prevocational interest. So also were the preferences of 
two boys, decidedly overage for their grades, who chose books on 
electricity, The How and Why of Electricity and Young Electrician's 
Handbook. The latter boy had, he said, read a number of books 
on electricity, but this one he knew "most by heart." He later 
wrote me a letter which sent me scurrying to higher authorities for 
a translation of language too technical for my intelligence. (That 
sixteen-year-old boy is in a seventh grade. Is it too much aside 
from our subject to remark the sinful economic waste there ?) 

The practically universal choice of fiction might at first seem 
cause for alarm, might seem to indicate that our literary taste was 
inclined to be frivolous. We must remember, however, that the 
questionnaire asked only for the favorite, not for the entire, bill of 
fare. Most children and many adults chose as their favorite dish 
a dessert rather than a staple, but that does not necessarily mean 
that they subsist entirely on ice-cream and plum pudding. After 
all, need a preference for fiction worry us ? Is there, then, no real 
good to be obtained from the reading of fiction ? At the least it 
affords recreation and entertainment; at the highest it interprets 
life-problems in such a way as to give us a philosophy of life that 
is surely character-forming. In between the least and the best 
are graded values — of history, of geography, of current opinion, 
of ideals, and a knowledge of peoples, places, and times surely not 
worthless. 

The range in choice of favorite fiction was wide, and varied 
from Elsie Dinsmore and Tom Swift to Les Miserables, with, it 
seemed, everything in between. The reasons given for the choices 
were intensely interesting, and more enlightening than the choices 
themselves. They served as a guide in making some sort of a 
generalization and classification of the material. Among the large 
classes into which they might be divided are those who prefer the 



TEACHING CHILDREN TO CHOOSE 141 

book of their choice because "it is exciting," because of its "adven- 
ture" or its "mystery," because "it taught a good lesson," "it had 
so many interesting characters," or because "it was about a boy 
or girl of my own age." Frequently there is in the choice or com- 
ment an illuminating flash of personality which is delightful. A 
little city girl writes of The Girl of the Limberlost, " I liked it because 
it seemed so real; some of the things she did I often wanted to do." 
A girl of fifteen recommends The Prisoner of Zenda because " the 
characters are so wonderful, the plot is so interesting, and the love 
is so beautiful that it is almost sad"; then adds delightfully, 
retrieving herself from the charge of sentimentality, "The fights are 
especially to my liking." Another girl likes David Copper field, 
because it seemed so real. "When I was reading it," she says, 
" everything else I did was like a dream, and I felt as if I would be 
wakened up by Betsy Trotwood." The comments on The Harvester 
are very interesting for the reason that in no case does the romance 
or the mysticism seem to have been the impressive part of the story, 
as it probably would be to an adult. A girl writes of it, "Every- 
thing on the landscape is made more interesting to me." Another 
recommends it to anyone who likes books "with a variety of move- 
ment, some exciting, some smooth." A boy of twelve likes it 
because he also is "a raiser of herbs," and an older boy says, "I 
like this book because I like the open; I like to work in the soil." 
I felt that I should like to become personally acquainted with the 
twelve-year-old whose "blood boils" over the story of Kazan, 
which is, he says, a "very good book for boys with real red blood 
in their veins." These are but examples that might be multiplied 
by the score if time and space permitted. 

Among the girls, stories of other girls were popular, especially 
if there was a moral somewhere about it, "a fine character" or 
"a good lesson." The introspective and, to us, sentimental 
somehow fits the temperament of many girls of the early 'teen 
age, while to boys of the same age the expression of feeling is abhor- 
rent, almost indecent. In no case was a boy found to commit 
himself to a "girls' book" of this type. A great many girls, on 
the other hand, frankly prefer boys' books. One girl wrote 
apologetically, "Maybe I've been unfortunate in my choice of 



142 THE ENGLISH JOURNAL 

girls' books but so many of them seem sickly to me." She evi- 
dently had not yet reached the moralizing age. Another girl 
writes, "Boys' books like this one [Captains Courageous] have so 
much more pep." In the first thirty, arranging them in the order 
of their popularity, scarcely one-fifth were "girls' books," although 
Pollyanna topped the list with 8 per cent of the total choices — 
by a vote entirely "suffrage." Tom Sawyer was second, with 6 per 
cent, and Treasure Island third with 4, about two of the 6 and one 
of the 4 per cent being girls' choices. The Girl of the Limberlost, 
Huckleberry Finn, Little Women, "Tom Swift Series," Anne of Green 
Gables, Over the Top, Freckles, and Tarzan of the Apes followed, 
ranging from a little more to a little less than 3 per cent. The 
others of the first thirty in order of popularity were: "Boy Allies 
Series," Just David, When a Man's a Man, The Secret Garden, 
"Rover Boy Series," The Last of the Mohicans, " Camp Fire Girl 
Series," "Boy Scout Series," Penrod, The Harvester, Private Peat, 
Captains Courageous, The Crisis, Heidi, The Boarded-up House, The 
Lost Prince, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Call of the Wild, The 
Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come. That will give some idea of 
the range of choice if we remember that neither the best nor the 
poorest books chosen as favorites are found on the list of the most 
popular. A surprising number of pupils were reading, apparently 
with understanding, books like Les Miserables, Ben Hur, and 
The Fair God; and fully 60 per cent of the books read were books 
to be found on approved lists selected by schools or libraries for 
outside reading — two very encouraging facts which served to 
counterbalance some other discoveries which the cards made. 

Boys' literature is by their own request a literature of action, 
of adventure. Sometimes, unfortunately, this craving for adven- 
ture is satisfied by the "paperback." More often and more 
unfortunately it is satisfied by the "series." I say more unfor- 
tunately because the danger of the "series" drug habit is the 
greater, being the more insidious; just as the danger that a young 
mother will dope her child with paragoric is greater than the danger 
that she will dose it from a bottle red-marked "Poison." These 
books, the series, are the patent medicines of literature, masquerad- 
ing as beneficial but making little dope-fiends of their users. Not 



TEACHING CHILDREN TO CHOOSE 143 

only is the number of pupils addicted to this habit alarming, but 
doubly apalHng is the ever-increasing amount of the stuff one finds 
on the market. The cards of course showed this, but one has 
only to step into the juvenile section of any bookstore to prove it 
to himself. Try to purchase a gift for some small nephew or godson 
and see how these books are forced upon you with the insistence 
that they are "what the boys all call for." There are Rover Boys 
and Motor Boys, Aeroplane Boys and Submarine Boys, Boy Scouts 
and Boy Allies, Young Trailers and Tom Swifts, with their feminine 
counterparts, Little Colonels, Camp Fire Girls, Elsie Dinsmores, 
etc., apparently ad infinitum. I actually found on the card of 
a thirteen-year-old girl this comment on Elsie Dinsmore: "Inter- 
esting and educating. There is about forty of them and I have 
read them all." I did not know whether to throw up my hands 
in horror or to wring them in despair. Imagine wallowing 
through forty volumes of such slush and living to call it "edu- 
cating"! My distress was as keen but not quite so hopeless when 
I read on another card, "I recommend Elsie Dinsmore because it 
is such a sweet and touching book for young girls." For I really 
think the day is passing when very many girls will confess a taste 
for quite such sickly sweetness and touching tenderness as the 
Dinsmore type. There is, in fact, healthy indication of a reaction 
against the girls' series. On several cards note was made of the 
fact that one of a series, usually the first, was well liked but the rest 
were disliked "because of their sameness." "Her character," 
writes one girl of Anne of Green Gables, "was so refreshing and 
different that I was sorry the author had to make her grow up and 
all the rest of it. It spoils a story to add so many sequels." We 
may yet hope for a similar distaste to develop among the boys. 

Nevertheless, however greatly I deplore the prevalence of the 
"series" disease — and I assure you that I am as thoroughly awake 
to the seriousness of the situation as is the Brooklyn librarian 
whose interesting diagnosis of the case appeared in the Journal 
last year — yet I am far from advising anything so drastic as a 
surgical operation. If I were to act as literary physician, I believe 
I would incline to homeopathy rather than surgery. After all, 
people's ideas of what constitutes badness in books is as different 



144 THE ENGLISH JOURNAL 

as the people themselves. In my catalogue there are many worth- 
less books, vicious merely as all waste is vicious, but few actually 
bad books that a pupil is likely to run across. Even sensational 
stories often have some moral qualities — unflinching endurance 
of pain, resolute determination, and strength of any type are values 
even in desperado, pirate, or adventurer. In the little college 
town where I received my careful upbringing stands an old barn, 
the hay loft of which was once the scene alike of thrilling amateur 
acrobatics and complicated domestic affairs, and whose low sloping 
eaves later formed a naturally screened shelf for the private library 
whose circulation was only among the trusted few who knew the 
countersign. From what harm the readers of that library were 
spared only the guardian angel of childhood knows. What lessons, 
albeit embryonic, of strength, endurance, and courage we received 
I myself never realized until in a retrospect of later years some of 
these tabooed heroes stood forth in vivid bas-relief. I am frank 
to confess that much of the pleasure of the hayloft library came 
from the fact that it was forbidden; for not all of Eve is buried 
just outside Eden, and the fruit of the tree is still more tempting 
if it is forbidden us. There had been, you understand, in our 
mothers' careful censorship of our reading an unsuccessful attempt 
at a cure by surgery. The salvation or damnation of all haylofters 
lies in the ability, however it be developed, to assimilate the good 
and cast off the bad. That we English teachers have not in the 
past given ourselves the task of developing this ability is our 
disgrace. If instead of lifting our hands in horrified "Let it alone! " 
we had long ago applied ourselves to finding out how we could use 
the craving for this undesirable matter as a physician uses the 
symptoms of disease to discover to himself the conditions to be 
remedied, we should have discovered what better literature we 
could have prescribed to produce the same results; and, like good 
homeopaths, giving our prescription in whatever small doses seemed 
advisable, we might long ago have effected a cure. At the same 
time that the hayloft library was in circulation we were listening 
with equal interest to mother, whose custom it was to read aloud 
in the evenings from Dickens, Scott, and Cooper. Whatever per- 
manent injury was avoided, and whatever cure was effected, the 



TEACHING CHILDREN TO CHOOSE 145 

credit is due to the homeopathic remedy rather than to the surgery 
attempted. If by their own vote boys demand action and adven- 
ture, let us see from their own recommendation what there is to 
offer: books by Doyle, Dumas, Kipling, Marryat, Connelly, 
Cooper, Stevenson, Jules Verne, Jack London, and scores of others 
of whom you and I, orthodox English teachers as we have been, 
have never heard. 

Let me recommend to you the use in your own classes or schools 
of these "outside reading cards." It will surprise you to find what 
revelations can be made by these little slips — revelations of the 
thoroughness or the lack of it that has characterized the previous 
training in the technicalities of expression, revelations of the power 
of observation developed, of habits of mind, of methods of study, 
to say nothing of the revelations of character and personality, of 
real self. At the beginning of the term the best introduction I have 
been able to find to individual or to class, to temperament or to 
intellect, is the first card, which answers the two questions of the 
questionnaire: "What is your favorite book ?" "Why do you recom- 
mend it ?" It was worthy of note in studying the cards that where 
the best type of reading had been done the comment was more 
thoughtful and more carefully expressed. The poorer the choice 
of reading the more indifferent proved to be the comment and the 
more negligent the form; even the handwriting seemed to cor- 
respond in character to the character of the reading done. It 
was an illustration of the truth of the statement: "Show me what 
a man reads, and I'll tell you what he is." 

A study of the various methods by which the outside-reading 
problem is being solved in the different schools over the country 
would be interesting and valuable just now, it seems to me; espe- 
cially if in some way an indication could be found of the measure 
of influence the school is exerting on the choice of books. Besides 
the filing of the "outside-reading cards" which is in connection 
with the class work, it has been my custom in the past to ask the 
pupils in my classes to keep a record through the year of all the 
reading that they do, if possible with a very brief comment on each 
book, at the close of the year arranging the list in order, with the 
books they liked best at the head of the list, checking those which 



146 THE ENGLISH JOURNAL 

they read because of some influence or pressure which the school 
brought to bear. This report serves more than one purpose: it 
trains the pupil to form a more or less definite opinion of what he 
reads; it develops in him discrimination; it provides me, as from 
time to time I glance over these literary "diaries," with a sort of 
thermometer by which I can guage each individual's literary tempera- 
ture; and, by the scaling and checking at the close of the term, I 
can form some idea of the amount of influence which has been 
exerted during the term. As a rule the pupils are very honest 
about the report — if they were not, of course its object would be 
defeated — although there always are in each class a few little time- 
servers who arrange their lists with a view to impressing or pleasing 
the teacher. The fewer there are of these, the more successful 
I feel I have been in the term's work. If a number of schools 
would do this — if you would do it in your school, Friend Reader — 
and would send me the pupils' lists in June, together with a state- 
ment of what your school is attempting to do to influence the 
outside reading, then I would do my level best to put the data 
together so that it would be of worth to us all, and, the Journal 
"bein' willin'," would publish it. There are doubtless as many 
ways of managing the outside reading as there are teachers working 
on the project, but we all have the same "big idea": literature 
is no longer to be considered what Mr. Opdyke calls "a sublimated 
pudding to be eaten with delicate relish by the cultured few," 
but as something far bigger, for, like the best that our country 
can give us, it is of and for the people.